Guys, run for your lives, another romantic comedy! But wait, this is not a typical rom-com. “The Big Sick” is a very different movie. You still might run, but for different reasons. On the tenth anniversary of actor-comedian Kumail Nanjiani and wife Emily V. Gordon’s marriage, we see their semi-autobiographical account of a curious courtship.
In the opening scene, Kumail insists his life is exactly like ours, other than being born in Pakistan, having a family arranging his marriage and making a living as a comedian in Chicago; other than that, exactly the same. Together, Kumail and Emily co-wrote the script. He plays himself while a buoyant Zoe Kazan plays the role of Emily.
Ray Romano and Holly Hunter join the cast as Emily’s parents. Both play against type in seriously sensitive roles. Last year, with “Get Out,” we saw a rom-com turn into a “black lives matter” satire and then into a surprising horror flick. Even with comedians Ray Romano and Kumail Nanjiani in staring roles, “The Big Sick” progressively becomes less and less of a comedy and more of a dark drama.
The romance begins with Kumail getting heckled by a sharp young grad student during his standup act. When confronted, Emily shouts back, “I didn’t heckle you, just woo-hoo’d you, it’s supportive!” After the show, they meet and end up at his place. As their budding relationship develops, Kumail’s mom has different ideas about his future.
Although Kumail shares an apartment in the city with another budding comedian, he comes home often for dinner with his parents, brother and sister-in-law in the suburbs. When late, his mom cries, “I was so worried. We saw on the news that a train derailed, and we thought you had died.” Kumail responds, “Nobody died on that train, ma.” She snaps back, “But did they look under the train?”
The family dinner scenes are similar to almost any movie where ethnic parents from the “old world” hilariously banter with their American born children about respective views on the world. Kumail made it a point to show his family as fun and funny, as too often Hollywood will stereotype Pakistanis and Muslims as stern and grim outcasts.
Kumail’s parents enjoy their lives as Americans, but not so ready to yield to the new world in every way. In a Pakistani version of The Bachelor, his mom is lining up various Pakistani born women to be Kumail’s lifelong partner. Although Kumail meekly resists, she insists her future daughter-in-law be Pakistani and Muslim.
Meanwhile, Kumail is working the clubs with his roommate and other fellow comics. “What’s my stance on 9/11? Oh, um, anti. It was a tragedy. I mean we lost 19 of our best guys.” This was unfunny and horribly offensive. Director Michael Showalter should have insisted it be removed. Not sure it was their intent or not, but there wasn’t anything in his stand up act laugh out loud funny or even enough to bring a wry smile.
Despite our views on his monologue, we gain a glimpse of the grim and dingy comedic club life requiring backstage maneuvering for success. In his life, Kumail juggles a struggling career, exciting new relationship and a parental culture clash. Then, the story moves from forgettable to mesmerizing when three things happen. Emily leaves him, she contacts a rare infection and he gets an opportunity to move to New York City.
As Emily descends into a medically induced coma, Kumail fully realizes what he had and what he could very well lose. As he suffers with her spirited parents (Romano and Hunter), they learn a lot about each other and more about themselves. A series of decisions will affect Kumail’s life with Emily, her parents, his parents and his career.
“The Big Sick” is two hours and rated R for language and sexual situations. Like the best rom-coms, it will make you laugh and make you cry. This isn’t a great film, but this sleeper feels authentic, unexpectedly remarkable and too implausible to be fiction. Prior to its release, Kumail summarized to his audience, “My wife and I wrote a movie and I’m in it. Just look for the rom-com about a brown man and a white woman, starring me!”
Ron’s Rating: B
Leigh’s Rating: B